Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego often tells a story about that day more than a decade ago when Gregg Popovich asked him what he thought about a particular strategy.
Borrego, then the San Antonio Spurs’ video coordinator, never imagined Popovich, the Spurs’ Hall of Fame coach, soliciting his opinion. He was lost for words, and Borrego promised himself he’d never again be unprepared if Popovich called on him.
Popovich found that story interesting Monday because “unprepared” is the last word he’d use to describe protege Borrego. Hours before the Hornets upset the Spurs at AT&T Center 108-93, Popovich said Borrego was so exceptional at an entry-level job that he made it impossible not to promote him to assistant coach.
“J.B. was totally committed to doing anything we asked him to do and was very important,” Popovich said of the six years Borrego supplied Popovich with video edits.
Nothing about “video coordinator” sounds important, except when it is. The job requires a blend of technical savvy and basketball acumen. Most importantly, it demands urgency and organization to locate exactly what Popovich needed in real time to illustrate a point.
An 82-game NBA regular season, plus the long playoff runs the Spurs have customarily made, tax players’ focus and concentration. Coaches must correct efficiently to get their point across and nothing illustrates correction better than recent game video.
Borrego had to catalog examples of every action in the Spurs’ playbook to show how a play should and shouldn’t look, and have anything available within minutes of Popovich’s request.
“I wanted him to make his point with the right clips, at the right time, in the most efficient way,” Borrego said. “If he lost that moment, he wouldn’t have (impacted) the team the way he wanted to, and I didn’t want to let him down.”
Over six years in the Spurs’ video department, Borrego evolved from reacting to Popovich’s needs to anticipating them.
“I wanted to think ahead of him,” Borrego recalled. “I didn’t want him worrying about what would come out of the video room.”
Popovich is known to be gruff and impatient with staff. So when Popovich described Borrego’s video work as “perfect” Monday, it resonated how hard Borrego applied himself.
“I’d be able to show whoever the player was the good he did or what he needed to correct, because (Borrego) had a feel,” Popovich described.
“Players, they fall asleep; they’re not going to pay attention after a while. They want it now, quick: ‘Tell me now what I need so I can get out of here.’ He was perfect in getting me what I needed to teach.”
So much so that Popovich started moving Borrego, a former player and assistant coach at the University of San Diego, to the practice gym.
“He morphed out onto the floor because the players respected him so much. I’d grab him for drills and he became very valuable very quickly,” Popovich said of Borrego’s promotion.
“He’s someone who understands people. Knowing Xs and Os are important, but all the coaches know (strategy). It’s about building relationships and understanding how a culture is built, how over time continuity establishes a certain way of doing things. Trying to make people more confident, motivating. He’s excellent at that and his demeanor is beyond reproach.”
Borrego is part of a growing Popovich coaching tree that includes the Philadelphia 76ers’ Brett Brown and Milwaukee Bucks’ Mike Budenholzer. Borrego learned plenty since going to work for Popovich in 2003, but that first lesson - the value of efficiency - centers his approach to being a head coach.
“Pop wanted it in a very clean, concise way. That’s how things were done here - very orderly,” Borrego recalled.
“He taught me preparation. That’s basically why I’m standing here as a head coach.”